Factors Affecting English Teaching and its Materials Preparation in Libya

By Faraj M Sawan


This essay is concerned with the effects of the local constraints on materials preparation in Libya. The essay will be divided into five parts. Section (1) describes the situation of learning English in Libya in the past and the present. In section (2) the reasons for teaching English in Libya are given and briefly discussed. Then, section (3) serves as an overview of the literature related to the topic. Section (4) discusses the important factors and constraints that seem to have affected English language teaching and learning in Libya and its materials preparation. Those constraints are related to politics, history, media and the Internet, beliefs …etc. At the end the conclusion summarises the most important points raised in the essay.

Why ELT in Libya

One might wonder why learn English at all in a country like Libya? But, immediately the mind recalls the fact that almost all of the high-tech scientific advances, and political terminologies come from an English speaking countries which, in turn, make people obliged to learn English so that they can benefit from them (Crystal, 1997: 80). In addition to learning about different cultures through the medium of English language, Libyan learners will have the opportunity to participate in global interaction, because as Crystal (1997: 87-89, 91, 93, 106, 109, and 117) points out:

1        English is one of the official languages of the UN.

2        The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries uses English as its official language.

3        “English is used as the sole official language … [of] the All-African People’s Organisation”.

4        The Arab Air Carriers Association uses English as one of its official languages.

5        “The overriding impression is that, whenever in the world an organisation is based, English is the chief auxiliary language”.

6        “The English language has been an important medium of the press for nearly 400 years”.

7        English is the language in which most of publications and research findings are published, especially the well-known academic journals.

8        “English has long been recognised as the international language of the sea”.

9        “Over 180 nations have adopted the recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) about English terminology”.

10    Most of the information on the Internet is in English.

The importance of English and its learning is also pointed out by other researchers. Ferguson (1981) in (Kachru, 1982: ix) states that “… English is as significant… as is the modern use of computers”. Kachru (1982:3) has specified certain reason which motivates the learning of English. He argued that “English is often learned because of its heritage, because of the status it may confer on the reader or speaker, because of the doors which it opens in technology, science, trade, and diplomacy”.

From what have been mentioned above, one can conclude that learning English is a vital tool for gaining knowledge because as Crystal (1997:110) states “English is the medium of great deal of the world’s knowledge, especially in such areas as science and technology”. Moreover, English is increasingly becoming the language of global interaction. Therefore, Libyan educationalists were right in their decision to incorporate English within the national curriculum.

ELT Situation in Libya

During the 1970s and until the mid-1980s learning English was an obligatory component within the Libyan national curriculum, but in 1986 teaching and learning English were completely banned. This was due to the cultural, political and economical factors which have deeply influenced the educational system at that time. Teachers, students, and pupils, regardless of religious constitutions, were ordered to neglect the learning of foreign languages such as English and French even though Islam encourages the learning of languages. This, in turn, made the teachers of English jobless or otherwise had to teach other subjects such as history and geography. At that time students were unaware of the problem until they finished their secondary school and became university students where then failure to study many subjects in English was evident.

After a while the Libyan educationalists realised the fault and determined to incorporate English in the curriculum again. They decided that not only English must be taught, but other languages must also be learned even at the very early stages of the learning process. When English was welcomed back at school again (in 1997) teachers who were once teaching English became unable to teach it. The new textbooks which were introduced integrated cultural aspects of the English language that require the application of new teaching methodologies such as the communicative approach. This has created an obstacle in the teaching learning environment. Teachers have forgotten the English language, but they have to teach it. There were only few left who were still capable of teaching languages, particularly English. To deal with this problem, programmes for training teachers of English were designed, but the local educational culture prevalent among teachers and learners had led to nothing but failure, because, in the past, Libyan teachers of English were accustomed to old methodologies and to materials which were solely built on the Libyan culture.

Background and Literature Review

Culture has been defined as the “integrated pattern of human behaviour that includes thoughts, communications, languages, practices, beliefs, values, customs, courtesies, rituals, manners of interacting and roles, relationships and expected behaviours of a racial, ethnic, religious or social group; and the ability to transmit the above to succeeding generations” (Goode et al, 2000). This implies that English language is not only a component of the English-speaking countries’ culture, but it also exhibits and transmits it (Peterson and Coltrane, 2003); “For culture is only transmissible through coding, classifying and concentrating experience through some form of language” (Stern, 1983: 200). Therefore, incorporating only certain aspects of the English-speaking countries’ culture within the materials to be taught cannot lead to the full efficient mastery of the language. Language reflects culture; hence it is crucial to incorporate them together in the materials (Fairclough, 1992: 6). Pure linguistic knowledge alone is not sufficient for cultural interaction (Peterson and Coltrane, 2003). It should be noted that language teaching theorists have emphasised the importance of language learning in gaining knowledge about a country and its people (Stern, 1993: 247). It is worth mentioning here that Libyan educationalists and syllabus designers in the past (before 1999) had separated the English language from its inner circle cultures. On the contrary, Peterson and Coltrane (2003) insist that the curriculum must include native materials to help learners get involved in true cultural experiences. Such materials can be obtained from sources like newspapers, magazines, websites, news programmes, lectures …etc.

The arguments presented so far are in favour of the idea that English has to be taught through the socio-cultural norms and values of an English-speaking country (Peterson and Coltrane, 2003), which, inevitably results in the creation of individuals who are both bilingual and bicultural (Alptekin and Alptekin, 1984). According to this assumption, then, language materials must incorporate at least the essential information about the cultural values and norms of the culture in order to give learners the chance to understand not only the linguistic side of the English language, but also to be able to communicate effectively with its native-speaking community.

Another different viewpoint is that the teaching of English should be freed from its nationality-bound cultural context, with the objective of developing bilingual without necessarily becoming bicultural individuals (Alptekin and Alptekin, 1984). The proponents of this view (Alptekin and Alptekin, 1984:14) argue that “local and international contexts which are familiar and relevant to students’ lives should be used (instead of unfamiliar and irrelevant contexts from the English speaking world)”.

It should be noted that the cultural facets of the English-speaking world which accompany the scientific information and technical machinery are deemed by some researchers as strange and unacceptable characteristics of the target culture (Wilkins, 1975: 49). In fact, the flow of information from the Anglo-American cultures made the receiving countries impose constraints on the educational system to preserve its way of living (Rao, 1976).  For example, in Libya the educated and politicians conceive of English learning materials which has not been ‘acculturated’ and modified to suit their country’s needs and culture as a threat to national identity.

Given the fact that English today can be used to transmit any cultural heritage (e.g. many books, films, series…etc. produced in other languages have been translated into English), it would be more practical to consider English as a language “which is not always inextricably tied to one particular culture” (Alptekin, 1993: 140). Furthermore, the viewpoint which stresses the connection between learning a language and its culture seems to neglect the effects of the learner’s pre-acquired world knowledge on foreign language learning (Alptekin, 1993: 140). Here one may highlight the dilemma of whether to concentrate on purely linguistic forms or to focus on the cultural aspects used in everyday interactions. Both ways, if applied without critical modifications, seem to be unrealistic and impractical (Stern, 1983: 191).

Finally, it could be argued that instead of thinking about either teaching English through the culture of its native-speaking countries or via the learners’ native culture, it would be feasible to upgrade the students’ knowledge from their own culture to the now new emerging global English culture of certain areas such as science, the Internet, the media, or even through human interaction within the globalisation era. It is worth noting here that Libyan educationalists and curriculum planners have (after 1999) adopted this view and associated English teaching with global culture (i.e. its use for international communication, scientific purposes, and to some extent for exploring the English ‘inner circle’ cultures.

The idea of incorporating cultural norms and values in the materials of the curriculum is not entirely new to foreign language teaching (Peterson and Coltrane, 2003). However, the controversy about it is related to the type of the cultural content to be included in the teaching materials. The content that should be integrated depends on the purpose of teaching a certain foreign language. If the aim was to enable learners to operate effectively in another language and community, cultural aspects should be regarded as an essential ingredient of the language materials(Peterson and Coltrane, 2003). On the other hand, if the main goal was to enable learners to communicate internationally and for plain educational purposes, then the materials of the curriculum should incorporate only those facets which are assumed to be shared by the whole world.

In the following section, some of the most important factors which are thought to have an effect on English language teaching and materials preparation in Libya will be briefly discussed. These include, among others, political and religious factors, and historical and attitudinal factors.

Constraints on ELT and its materials preparation in Libya

First of all  Libya has an Islamic culture which encourages learning languages. It is often generally mentioned in ‘Assonna books’ that learning languages is a matter of protecting oneself  from the evil of the others as Mohamed the prophet stated “they who have learnt the language of other people made themselves secure of their evil”.  This entails the understanding of other cultures of course. Nevertheless, what is seen in today’s Islamic countries is a rejection of certain aspects of the English-speaking countries’ culture.

For instance, the mention of alcohol, churches, nightclubs …etc. is regarded as an offence to Islam. Libya is no exception here. Until this moment no mention of any aspect of English culture which contradicts Islamic beliefs is found in the materials taught in English language classes.

Second, Libya has a political ideology which claims to give the local people the right to govern themselves. This fact has influenced the design of materials and national curriculum. English language textbooks used in the country have to conform to that ideology. For example, Libyan decision makers and educationalists find western cultural thought distasteful because of the difference in religion and other historical and political factors. They draw on certain features of their ideology and apply them to the educational system of the country. They do not, for instance, want concepts of capitalism to be taught at schools in the early stages of the learning process, especially within the field of English language learning. This is a dishonest behaviour as Holliday et el (2004: 14) put it: “ One may think that the ‘you’ in each of these cases is being deceitful or duplicitous, playing with or selecting what they like from their culture in this way”. In fact, imposing particular aspects of a culture on a teaching material will certainly affect the learning process, because understanding the output of cultures involved in the learning situation is an essential component of intercultural communication (Holliday et al, 2004: 19), and this understanding, in turn, will probably enhance the learning of the language in question. This assumption entails investigating both the local and the target culture, but, unfortunately, this was not the case in Libya. Libyan educationalists in the past emphasised only the role of the Libyan culture in teaching English and neglected the target culture of the English speaking countries completely for pure political reasons (e.g. the air raids on Libya in 1986 and the economic sanctions before that). There also has been a political view in the West which depicted Libyan government as a dictatorship and that the country was in need of liberation (Holliday et al, 2004: 38). This was, of course, a kind of ‘culturism’ which has to be politically corrected (Holliday et al, 2004: 33-34). Libyan educationalists have the right here to be very careful about the cultures involved, especially their political influences. As Holliday et al (2004: 41) put it “Be aware of the media, political and institutional influences in our own society which leads us to see people from other cultural backgrounds in a certain way”.

Also, the Libyan media which is government owned has influenced English learning too. The media has always perpetuated the description of the West as the enemy, until only recently when there has been a change in the political relations between Libya and the West. Since the West has long been negatively portrayed and misrepresented in the Libyan media, it is not surprising that Libyan learners of English view its cultural values and norms negatively. The media has made the learners acquire negative attitudes towards the Western culture and thus towards its languages. Libyan decision makers and media personnel can be fairly described as xenophobia activists here of course.

After the change in foreign affairs between Libya and both Britain and America, educationalists and policy makers sought to include within the English language materials certain representations of what can be called international English culture for certain purposes (e.g. to develop an awareness among learners of what is going on globally). Such a viewpoint is strengthened by Holliday et al (2004: 52) when they pointed out that “the ways ‘cultures’ and communities are referred to, and talked and written about, often serve particular vested interested”.

Moreover, the educational satellite channels and the Internet have practically encouraged learning English and provided more authentic materials for both teachers and learners even though the language used in the Internet is not standard (Good, 2006). Crystal (1997: 119) has emphasised this point by arguing “that there is more high-quality content on the Web in English than in other languages …”. This view is also supported by Van Dijik (1998) in (Holliday et al, 2004: 123) who argues that “media discourse is the main source of people’s knowledge, attitudes and ideologies …”.

A further factor which has positively influenced ELT in Libya is the spread of private and summer schools which focus particularly on the teaching of English. They have promoted learning English as a foreign language which, in turn, has led to an increase in the attitudes of the students towards learning English and its community.


It seems that success in language learning depends on the extent to which cultural values and norms of the language community are integrated in the materials (Alptekin, 2002:58). Thus educationalists should abandon the preconceived thought of ‘otherness’ and focus on the fact that languages are used for intercultural communication rather than for pure educational and scientific purposes.

In the past the materials used in Libyan classrooms tended to increase misunderstandings of the target culture (Rogers and Steinfatt, 1999). Libyan learners of English were exposed to only superficial cultural information like geography, food and history which proved to be inadequate to enable students to gain a full understanding of the target language and culture (Valette, 1986).

In 1999 a new type of materials began to be utilised in Libyan English language classrooms. Libyan educationalists and linguists have realised that “instructional materials and activities should involve local and international contexts that are familiar and relevant to language learners’ lives” (Alptekin, 2002:63). The new materials have incorporated certain cultural facets which are believed to be found in the whole world as well as the Libyan cultural values and norms. The objective was to develop intercultural communicative competence among learners.

Finally, although the new materials have the essential characteristics which prepare students to use English effectively, most teachers are still struggling to cope with these materials because a) teachers are accustomed to old materials and methodologies, and b) they cannot communicate effectively in English due to the period of disuse which they experienced in the past. To overcome this obstacle, Libyan educationalists and linguists run teacher training programmes every year.

At the end it seems that attitudes towards a certain culture and its inhabitants play a very important role in language teaching and learning. This is obvious in the Libyan case. Libyan materials makers have had different attitudes at different times towards the English-speaking countries and their culture and this was reflected in the materials they produced.


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